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The scent of a dead celeb?

Hulton Archive / Getty Images file
A new line of fragrance is inspired by Marilyn Monroe's DNA.

A venture that uses the DNA from Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and other dead celebrities to mix up personality-driven fragrances is getting more than a whiff of publicity - but if you're expecting a touch of "Marilyn" to make you smell like the real Marilyn, you have no nose for science.

MyDNAFragrance's "Antiquity" line of perfumery appears to be the latest marketing gimmick driven by genetics, along the lines of DNA artprotein-coded music and (heh, heh) celebrity DNA samples.

The venture does use the celebrities' DNA code, after a fashion, and it does translate that code into a customized scent recipe - so there's certainly no false advertising. But the DNA that's used has absolutely no bearing on what a person smells like, and the DNA itself is not featured in the recipe.

In fact, in some cases, you probably wouldn't want to smell like the celebrity anyway. "I did a little research on Elvis, and he actually had really bad body odor," Diva Verdun, MyDNAFragrance's chief development officer, was quoted as saying in the New York Daily News.

Verdun makes clear that the recipes are secret formulas based on the genetic coding for mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, which exists outside the nucleus of every cell and is passed down genetically only from the mother's side. There are a limited number of variations in mtDNA, and millions of people share the same variation. So if the fragrance called "Blue Suede" is based on Elvis Presley's genetic code, it could also be based on the code for Elvis Weisenheimer who lives down at the end of the street.

The same goes for "Marilyn" as well as "iQ" (inspired by Albert Einstein), "Entrance" (Joan Crawford), "Monarch" (Katharine Hepburn) and "M" (Michael Jackson). Scientifically speaking, the fragrance has as much in common with these celebrities as a coat of arms.

MyDNAFragrance can do the same thing with your own DNA, as NBC's TODAY Show pointed out last year.

One of the most interesting parts of the process has to do with the source of the celebrity DNA. It turns out that the analysis was done on historical hair samples held by the University Archives' John Reznikoff, who also deals in collectible documents. Reznikoff is said to have the world's largest collection of celebrity hair - including clippings from Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and moonwalker Neil Armstrong.

Reznikoff hasn't yet sampled the "Antiquity" scents, but from what he understands, the fragrances are meant to reflect the olfactory essence of the person providing the DNA sample.

"It's very far from an astrology reading," he told me today. "It's very scientific. The point is to use the DNA profile and evoke the essence of a long-gone hero - sometimes not so long-gone, as in the case of Michael Jackson."

Reznikoff has hair samples from about 160 notable figures, but for now, MyDNAFragrance has had genetic profiles done for only a half-dozen bits of celebrity hair. 

You can't do a full-blown DNA test on shafts of hair - for that, you'd need the follicle or some other bits of skin surrounding the shaft. But you can analyze the mtDNA, as explained in this forensic primer. Sometimes a body sample is so degraded that the mtDNA test is as good as it gets - and in some cases, that's good enough. Such tests helped investigators solve the case of the Russian royal family's murder, 90 years after the deed was done.

So even though "Marilyn" may not make you smell like Marilyn Monroe, the flap over the fragrance can help you learn a little bit about how DNA analysis is done. And if you really do want to smell like Marilyn, there's an easy solution: Chanel No. 5, Monroe's favorite perfume. (When asked what she wore to bed, Monroe reportedly answered, "Five drops of Chanel No. 5.")

More on DNA and hair:

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